Tuesday, 25 January 2011

2010: A Year In Music [Part 5 of 5]

We now come to the epic finale of the list of albums which made my 2010, at least from a musical point of view. Enjoy!

Soundgarden -

I've recently had a bit of an early-90s revival, as is probably evident from the presence of other albums on this list. Of course, no 90s revival would be complete without delving into the grunge genre, which reached mainstream popularity in Seattle in the early-90s. I have been expanding my collection of grunge albums over the past year or so, picking up Pearl Jam's Ten (which I covered in the 2009 end-of-year series), Alice In Chain's Dirt, Faith No More's Angel dust and in 2010 these two albums by Seattle's Soundgarden.

The first album I picked up, Superunknown, was their commercial and critical peak. I knew a few songs before I bought it: the superbly melodic Black hole sun, the mellower Fell on black days and the fun rocker Spoonman. I went into the album expecting these songs (in particular Black hole sun) to be the clear standouts. Like Blood sugar sex magik, I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of all of the songs on this 73 minute album.

Chris Cornell is an amazingly versatile rock vocalist, and the rhythm section (in particular the drumming of Matt Cameron) is up there with the best. Some standout tracks on this album (other than those mentioned previously) include the swampy rocker Mailman, the eerie and atmospheric Head down, the anthemic The day I tried to live and the catchy single My wave. Despite the "grunge" tag, there's a lot of diverse sounds on the album exemplified by the powerful production; get a load of the middle-eastern elements of the instrumental Half.

I enjoyed Superunknown enough to pick up their previous album Badmotorfinger, which some friends had suggested was a better album; at 57 minutes it is certainly more concise. While it falls a fraction short of Superunknown for me, it's still an excellent record. Opener Rusty cage (later covered by Johnny Cash) kicks off with one of the finest guitar riffs of the 90s, before Chris Cornell enters the stage with a fine vocal performance, singing lyrics of torment and oppression ("I'm gonna break my rust cage and run", "I'm burning diesel burning dinosaur bones", "It's raining icepicks").

Elsewhere, Outshined astounds with its stunning harmonies, Room a thousand years wide is a kick-ass rocker with a stunning rhythm section and Holy water has a chorus that grabs you from the first listen and doesn't let go. Badmotorfinger is overall a much heavier and less diverse album than Superunknown, but it's a solid slab of early 90s rock music.

Van Halen - Van Halen

One of my first musical memories was choreographing a dance routine to Van Halen's hit Jump with my next door neighbour in the mid-80s. That, and We built this city. But I digress. This was Van Halen's debut album released in 1978. It was a groundbreaking album at the time, with guitarist Eddie Van Halen influencing a new decade of guitarists with his innovative playing style (in particular his tapping technique where he used his right hand as well as his left hand to fret notes).

Despite the fact that many of the songs from this album are regularly played on the radio, I must have been living under a rock for the past 30 years because I wasn't overly familiar with a lot of them. The exception to this was the stunning instrumental Eruption, an absolute highlight of the album and an aspiring guitarist's wet dream.

Elsewhere, Runnin' with the devil and Ain't talkin' about love are great rock songs which have aged remarkably well, combining the passionate vocals of David Lee Roth, guitar prowess of Eddie Van Halen, and the solid rhythmic foundation of bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen (Eddie's brother).

Jamie's cryin' influenced many an 80s power ballad, while Little dreamer slows things down a little bit and allows us to appreciate David Lee Roth's fine vocals. There's a few magic moments throughout, like the doo-wop breakdown of I'm the one and the acoustic intro to the blues standard Ice cream man (one of the two covers on the record alongside the Kinks' You really got me).

All this, and it was their debut album! A highly recommended listen.

Various Artists - "The Blues Brothers"

The Blues Brothers is a cult classic and a movie which I consider endlessly watchable. It has comedy, memorable quotes, action and a helluva lot of destruction. But the icing in the cake is the music, and it is compiled here on one of the greatest soundtracks ever released.

Many of the musicians on this CD make cameos in the movie. James Brown plays a priest whose rendition of The old landmark convinces Jake to get the band back together. Aretha Franklin plays a waitress/diner owner who sings Think to her husband (guitarist Matt Murphy) when he decides to ditch the apron and join the Blues Brothers band on the road. And who can forget Ray Charles, the owner of the music store, who sings Shake a tail feather to prove that the keyboard still has life in it?

This is simply a perfect soundtrack -- the performances are flawless, the tunes are hummable (Theme from Rawhide, Minnie the Moocher) and bluesy (She caught the Katy, Sweet home Chicago) in equal measure. They remind you of the best parts of the movie, but it also works perfectly as a standalone album.

Tom Waits - The Black Rider

I have an interesting history with this album, which is technically a soundtrack to the theatre play of the same same; it is one of the few albums that I bought twice. Allow me to elaborate. When I first started getting into Tom Waits, I decided pretty quickly that I had to buy everything the man had ever released. I stumbled upon this album on sale in 2003 and decided to pick it up.

I gave it a few listens and just couldn't get into it. There didn't appear to be anything to grab on to, and I found it too impenetrable. So I decided to return it for something a little more accessible (Jack Johnson's On and on, an album which couldn't be more different if it tried).

Shortly after this I picked up Bone machine, arguably one of his most "difficult" albums. That was an album which took a lot of time for me to get into, but is now in my top 5 Tom Waits albums of all time. In 2010 I picked up The black rider again. It's amazing what a difference 7 years make. Where before it was a mess of disjointed rhythms, cookie monster vocals and no sense of cohesion, now it was a beautiful piece of work.

How did I miss the beauty of songs like November, The briar and the rose and I'll shoot the moon before? Then there's the epic "film noir" atmosphere of songs like Just the right bullets and Crossroads which would sit happily alongside Black wings (from Bone machine) on a western film soundtrack.

There's a few oddities scattered about, from the beatnik William S. Burroughs' vocal performance on T'aint no sin to the chaos of Oily night. And there's also some gorgeous instrumentals like Russian dance which help to break up the album and ironically also provide a sense of cohesion.

Endlessly imaginative, experimental and quirky; file this next to Bone machine in your Tom Waits collection.

And thus we reach the end of my musical discoveries of 2010. Until next time, compadres.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

2010: A Year In Music [Part 4 of 5]

Here are five more choice albums that I discovered in 2010.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik

It was pretty commonplace in the late 80s and early 90s (when compact discs became more prevalent) for albums to be over-stuffed with filler just because they could. While early CDs could hold 74 minutes of music, some musicians didn't adhere to the "less is more" philosophy and this often resulted in disjointed listens that you would be less inclined to revisit.

This album's running length of 73:49 was one of the reasons why I hesitated to pick it up earlier. Sure it had a lot of critical acclaim, but I honestly expected to get an album of classics like the beautiful ballad Under the bridge and funk masterclass Give it away surrounded by lots of carbon copies. It turns out that I was wrong; this is a brilliant album that deserves all of the praise that is thrown at it.

This album is a never-ending party, from the moment opener The power of equality hits top gear, through to the fun throwaway cover of Robert Johnson's They're red hot that closes the record. Most of the songs fit the upbeat funk template that RHCP have made their own, but there are a few quieter moments (Breaking the girl, I could have lied and of course Under the bridge) which give the listener a chance to catch their breath.

Every song is different enough to warrant inclusion -- some of the lesser-known classics are Funky monks, Mellowship slinky in B major, Apache rose peacock and the epic (almost) finale Sir psycho sexy (get a load of that melodic coda).

The star of the show is Flea, whose melodic bass lines take centre stage in every song. As great as the musical performances are, they wouldn't be worth anything if they were lost in a sludgy compressed mix. Luckily, this 1991 album is pre loudness war; Rick Rubin's production is air tight but incredibly dynamic, allowing you to pick out individual elements in the mix. It's a pity he didn't maintain the same standard of production on subsequent compressed abominations Californication and Stadium arcadium.

Casual RHCP listeners will probably only need one of their albums; make sure it is this one.

Archie Roach - Charcoal Lane

There was a poll in 2010 where people were able to vote for their favourite Australian album of all time (you can see the results here). What I found more interesting than the actual list (which didn't have too many surprises) was the discussion on various message boards where Aussie music fans nominated albums that they felt missed the cut. This 1990 debut album by indigenous singer-songwriter Archie Roach was an album which was mentioned a few times, so I decided to pick it up. I can now say without hesitation that it is one of the great Australian albums.

The most well-known song on the album is the haunting ballad Take the children away, about the Stolen Generation. This is a topic which is very close to Roach's heart, as he and his sisters were taken from his family by the Australian government and placed in an orphanage. It's a sad
and powerful song about a very sad part of Australia's history, and rightfully considered an Australian classic.

Elsewhere, the album doesn't miss a beat. Most of the songs are sparse folk numbers which allows Roach's powerful voice and poignant lyrics to take centre stage; there are also a few upbeat numbers (Down city streets, No no no) which give the album some much needed diversity. The title track talks about the restaurant of the same name in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, where Aboriginal and disadvantaged people were given a chance to work in apprenticeship positions.

Elsewhere, closer Summer of my life is an incredibly heartbreaking story of an old lady reminiscing about an old man (who had presumably passed away) looking back on his life from his hospital bed. It's moments like this that elevate Archie Roach to the upper echelon of Australian singer/songwriters.

Bob Seger - Stranger In Town

Not exactly the hippest album in my collection (check out that cover), but what a great record of American heartland rock. Night moves is commonly considered to be his masterpiece, and it's a fine record; I think I may prefer this one even more.

There's quite a few popular songs scattered around, from the driving opener Hollywood nights, the beautiful (albeit a little schmaltzy) ballad We've got tonight, the overplayed cover Old time rock and roll and the wistfully nostalgic Still the same.

But he might save the best until last with the final two songs: the multi-part Brave strangers and the wide-screen epic The famous final scene. Not much else more to say; this is not the most ground breaking or innovative album ever released, but if you're in the mood for classic 70s rock, it doesn't get much better than this.

Paul Simon - There Goes Rhymin' Simon

This album may almost take the record (pun intended) for the longest time on my "to buy" list. For many years, the only Paul Simon albums that I owned were his classic and influential Graceland and his underrated Latin-influenced 1990 album The rhythm of the saints (which I picked up in a 2-for-1 pack in the mid-90s). I also have a handful of Simon & Garfunkel albums.

Quite a few years ago, I decided to expand my Paul Simon collection. Most of the research that I did pointed to this 1973 album (his 2nd solo effort) being one of his best. In the meantime, I had picked up a few more Simon albums: the excellent Hearts and bones (1982), Brian Eno collaboration Surprise (2006) and Grammy award winner Still crazy after all these years (1975). In 2010 I finally picked up There goes rhymin' Simon.

This is possibly Simon's most eclectic album -- there's great pop songs (Kodachrome, the fun sing-along One man's ceiling is another man's floor), poignant ballads (the superb American tune, St. Judy's comet, Something so right), low-key jazz numbers (Tenderness), horn-inflected dixieland (Take me the mardi gras), reggae (Was a sunny day) and even gospel (Loves me like a rock). It all sounds a bit of a mess, but it holds together as a great album.

On a side note, don't you love albums where each song is represented by a picture in the artwork?

Simple Minds - New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84)

Simple Minds will forever be associated with their 1985 #1 hit Don't you (forget about me) from the soundtrack to the John Hughes movie The breakfast club. A hit like this can often me a double-edged sword for a band; it gave them much deserved commercial success, but it also changed their music path towards a more "80s pop" commercial sound.

New gold dream was their 5th studio album, released in September 1982. With the exception of the more radio-friendly hit singles Promised you a miracle and Glittering prize, the album is made up of lush, synth-based new wave numbers. Unlike many albums by their contemporaries, this album still sounds remarkably fresh today; many critics indicate that this is due to their use of real drums rather than electronic drum machines which were so common at the time.

Like mid-late 80s Cure, the songs are densely epic and elicit strong emotional feelings from the listener. Opener Someone, somewhere in summertime lures you into the world of this album. Big sleep starts out with a circular synth riff which is repeated throughout the song. Jim Kerr's emotionally effective vocals take centre stage, and the instrumental repetition and vocal wails in the 2nd half of the song puts the listener in a trance-like state. Most of the other songs are just as effective, and even the more pop-oriented singles fit in well.

This album is a prime example of well aged 80s new wave pop, an album which has stood the test of time in a decade which was not devoid of throwaway pop fluff.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

2010: A Year In Music [Part 3 of 5]

And so we continue...

Foo Fighters - The Colour And The Shape

Foo Fighters are one of those bands that are very easy to take for granted. Their songs have always just been there, and no matter how many times one hears them on the radio, they manage to maintain their freshness. Their music has achieved great cross-over success, satisfying grunge fans who were mourning the death of an era, metal heads, classic rockers, and even being melodic and accessible enough to lure in pop music listeners.

I decided I was well overdue for a Foo Fighters album in my collection, and this seemed to be the (almost) unanimous pick for their best album. First of all, let's count the hits -- Monkey wrench, My hero and Everlong. That's three great radio-friendly rockers right there. Beautiful ballad Walking after you was also included on the X-Files soundtrack, albeit a slightly different version.

Dig a little deeper, and you find several coulda-been hits like Hey, Johnny Park and Up in arms. There's a great eclecticism to the proceedings, with stunning ballads (Doll, Walking after you) interspersed amongst dynamic rockers (New way home, My poor brain). There's even some quirky moments (See you) sitting on the same bus with thrash numbers (Enough space). My personal favourite (February stars) starts out as a ballad before it changes halfway into a feedback drenched and emotionally charged number.

Despite the variation in styles and sounds, it's all very accessible and easy to listen to, without resorting to cheap hooks or lacklustre songwriting. Commercial music doesn't have to be shallow or bland, and Dave Grohl and co. show you how on this excellent album.

Al Green - Greatest Hits

I don't understand why it took me so long to pick up an Al Green album. His stunning ballad Let's stay together (famous for its inclusion on the excellent Pulp fiction soundtrack) is rightly one of my favourite songs of all time. I guess I just considered him just another soul singer (TM), with Marvin Gaye, Sly & The Family Stone et. al. able to satisfy the need for that music in my collection.

For an artist as prolific as Al Green, a compilation seemed to be the way to go, and when an expanded 2CD edition of his Greatest hits was released, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to get more into his music. This purchase contradicts one of my previous blog posts about compilations, where I specifically mentioned avoiding two-disc sets. Let's just say that Al Green has the talent and discography to justify such a sprawling collection.

So what about the music? The majority of the songs on this collection are some of the finest soul/R&B songs ever released. They have groove, funk and passion and they are all topped off with one of the finest vocalists of the past 50 years.

Highlights are everywhere, but I'll reel off a few: Let's stay together (of course!), Tired of being alone, I'm still in love with you, Oh me, oh my (dreams in my arms), Call me, I gotta be more (Take me higher), the ultra-funky Love ritual and the more recent recording Starting all over again. That's only a short list, but the majority of the songs on this collection are as high in quality.

Even the covers (The Box Tops' The letter, The Doors' Light my fire and The Bee Gees' How can you mend a broken heart?) are fantastic re-inventions of songs which (with the exception of The letter) didn't sound like soul songs to begin with.

Al Green is a legendary artist, and this compilation is a great entry point into his vast catalogue.

Kings Of Leon - Youth & Young Manhood

It's a pity that it took a song as bland and generic as Sex on fire to give this band commercial success. Their first two releases were lean, well-produced albums that had instant appeal but more importantly had subtlety and longevity. Sure, their sound owed a lot to their influences (Stones, Creedence, The Allman Brothers) but they had the passion which made it great to listen to and the back-story which made it real.

You can almost picture the record company meeting where one of the big-wigs told them that if they cleaned up their rough edges and polished their sound, they could make it big. It's unfortunate in this day and age that there is often a conflict of interest between making good music and paying the bills, but I'm not a musician so who am I to complain?

Anyway, enough ranting about what they became; this great debut album is what they were and it's a great listen. They mix up the bluesy rockers (Red morning light, Wasted time) with the more catchy upbeat numbers (Happy alone, California waiting, Molly's chambers) and a few scratchy ballads (Trani, Dusty) which give the album a lot of light and shade. Unlike a lot of recent albums, the production by Ethan Johns maintains a wonderful sense of dynamics, allowing the music to breathe without overwhelming the listener.

Even the hidden track at the album (Talihina sky) is a lovely and melodic number. I wasn't expecting this album to be this good, but it was a pleasant surprise.

Mr. Bungle - California

I've become a bit of a broken record lately when talking about the lack of dynamics in modern music. Needless to say, I have had to find creative ways to discover new music, and most of the time this has involved investigating a lot of pre-2000s music that I missed the first time around.

Mr. Bungle was one of the many side projects of Mike Patton (the singer from Faith No More) where he unleashed some of his more experimental music. I remember hearing their 2nd album Disco volante when I was younger, as my brother was a fan and played it quite a bit. I was definitely a lot less open-minded when it came to experimental music back in those days. Then one of the music blogs which I subscribe to gave a retrospective review to California, their 3rd and most-accessible album. The review intrigued me enough to pick it up.

Like any of the Mr. Bungle albums, California is all over the place, encompassing a wide variety of genres from metal, doo-wop, funk, surf-rock, and late Tom Waits era carnival music. Some songs, like opener Sweet charity and Pink cigarette are fairly immediate. Others, like the psychotic closer Goodbye sober day and the stupendous Retrovertigo take a few more listens to reveal their charms.

The songwriting and performances are great, but it's the amazing production which pushes it into "brilliant album" territory for me. There are quiet parts which make the loud parts all the more powerful, and there's always subtle elements in the mix which reveal themselves more with each listen.

Frank Zappa may have died in 1993, but his spirit lives on in this great piece of work.

Neon Neon - Stainless Style

Concept albums can be mighty pretentious, can't they? This one is an exception for a few reasons. Firstly, it was written and performed by Gruff Rhys, the quirky genius front-man of Welsh band Super Furry Animals (in collaboration with electronic artist Boom Bip). Secondly, it's a concept album about John DeLorean, the man behind the car used for the time machine in Back to the future. As an 80s kid, the Back to the future trilogy are three of my favourite movies of all time, so anything connected with those movies will get an immediate thumbs-up from me.

The album juxtaposes 80s-style pop with a few hip-hop songs that help expand the story of John DeLorean and his troubled life. Throughout the CD, we hear about his love affairs (Raquel, I lust you), the founding of his company (Dream cars) and some of dark elements of his past (Sweat shop, Luxury pool). As an 80s pastiche it works incredibly well, with great melodies and beats throughout. My only criticism is that the hip-hop songs, while being effective in telling the story, detract significantly from the flow of the album. They stand out a bit too much.

This is a very accomplished album from one of the greatest songwriters and musicians from the past two decades, a man who can seemingly do no wrong.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

2010: A Year In Music [Part 2 of 5]

We now continue my list of musical discoveries of 2010. Enjoy!

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions - Rattlesnakes

I mentioned in the first post that this list wasn't in any sort of order, but if I was to order this list, this would most definitely be my album of the year. I haven't gotten as excited about an album since I first heard Cold fact by Rodriguez.

I first heard about this album when I read in a review that the Camera Obscura song Lloyd, I'm ready to be heartbroken was an answer song to Are you ready to be heartbroken? from this album. I started reading reviews about Rattlesnakes and the acclaim that I read quickly let me to add it to my list of albums to pick up (check out the reviews on Amazon where there isn't a single rating of less than 5 stars).

Released in 1984, this is a definitive "lost classic" album which deserves to be heard by anyone with even a passing interest in good music. I would compare the sound of this album most to 2 bands - The Smiths and The Go-Betweens. The melodies are gorgeous (get a let of that guitar riff on Charlotte street, or the chorus of Down on mission street) and the vocal performances are spot on (Patience, Rattlesnakes).

The lyrics are literary in the same vein as Robert Forster, injected with lots of pop-culture references (She looks like Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront / She reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance) and wit (She's got cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin / And she's sexually enlightened by Cosmopolitan). It looks pretentious on paper, but like some of Jarvis Cocker's best material, Lloyd Cole has the talents to pull it off to perfection.

A shamelessly flawless album which is recommended to anyone with ears.

Died Pretty - Doughboy Hollow

Australian alternative rock band Died Pretty formed in 1983 in Sydney. Led by the charismatic vocalist Ron Peno, this album from 1991 (the year that grunge broke) is often considered to be their finest effort. I first read about this album in a magazine where various Australian musicians were asked to name their favourite Australian albums, and this album was mentioned a few times.

Equal parts atmospheric ballads (Doused, Turn your head, The love song), anthemic rockers (Sweetheart, Godbless) and melodic pop numbers (D.C., Stop myself) -- this is an eclectic yet cohesive album which isn't too far removed from the music that R.E.M. were making in the late 80s and early 90s (when they transitioned to the Warner Brothers label).

The core of their sound is a combination of the chiming guitar of Brett Myers and powerful vocals of Ron Peno. It's a filler-free and well-sequenced album which deserves a place in the great Australian albums hall of fame.

The Dukes of Stratosphear - Chips From The Chocolate Fireball

Chips from the chocolate fireball is a compilation of the 1985 EP 25 O'clock (pictured above) and 1987 album Psonic psunspot released by The Dukes of Stratosphear in 1987. The Dukes of Stratosphere was a pseudonym for the British post-punk/pastoral-pop band XTC, who were probably best known for their hit singles Senses working overtime and Making plans for Nigel.

When this album was released, it was never revealed who the Dukes of Stratosphear were, and only those with keen detective skills (and a good ear) figured out that it a cheeky little side project of XTC. It was a clever piece of musical marketing; just like the Beatles had done 20 years earlier with Sgt Peppers, XTC had re-invented themselves by pretending to be a completely different band. What was the most pleasant surprise was the exceptional quality of all of the material on this compilation, with many of the songs being better than some of the "real" XTC songs.

It was a detour sonically, allowing Andy Partridge and co. to experiment with the sounds of late 60s psychedelia. Most of the songs wear their influences proudly, from Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd (Bike ride to the moon), Nuggets-esque rockers (25 O'clock), cockney Small Faces-esque pop (Have you seen Jackie?, Albert Brown) and of course post-Revolver Beatles (almost everything).

The absolute highlight is saved until last with the gorgeous Pale and precious, one of their many tributes to the music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys circa Pet sounds. It's a stunning piece of work and possibly their finest 5 minutes.

Bob Dylan - The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (1961-1991)

This classic compilation has been on my list of box sets to buy for a long time, and it took the Australian dollar reaching a long-term peak for me to finally decide to pick it up on eBay. I'm not sure what I can say about this compilation that hasn't already been said many times ad nauseum, but I'll say it again. If you consider yourself a Bob Dylan fan, and only have his studio albums, you ain't heard nothing yet. There are songs on here which are not only some of Mr Zimmerman's finest, but some of the finest songs released in the past 50 years.

The 58 songs on this 3 CD set include material from a span of just under 30 years, from his youthful folkie days of the early 60s, through to his classic mid-60s Highway 61 revisited and Blonde on blonde era, his mid-70s Blood on the tracks era, and his "born again Christian" era of the late-70s and early 80s. It's a fascinating collection, documenting his growth as a musician and a songwriter, and his unwillingness to sit still or confine himself to a particular genre of music

There are outstanding folk songs (He was a friend of mine, No more auction block, Let me die in my footsteps, Who killed Davey Moore?, Moonshiner), most of which are better than some of the material released on his first 4 albums.

There are interesting experiments like the surreal spoken word poem Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie and funny instrumental Suze (The cough song) where Bob breaks down in a coughing fit at the end of the song.

There are also the original versions of some of the Blood on the tracks songs, before Dylan decided to re-record them with new musicians. And there are some delightfully catchy outtakes like the Blonde on blonde era She's your lover now and live Seven days which will probably edge their way into your top 20 Dylan songs.

I haven't even mentioned Blind Willie McTell, an absolute highlight of this set: a haunting ballad which for some bizarre reason Dylan didn't include on the Infidels album, an album which was not devoid of filler. This compilation is a dusty collection of hidden gems that you find locked away in the attic; I look forward to discovering and re-discovering these songs for many years to come.

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Critics raved about this album when it came out in 2008. I'm getting much more cynical of hype as I get older, and I figured that it would be one of those "flavour of the month" albums that would get old pretty quickly. I finally picked it up when I was in London in late 2009, and it has been an album which has stood the test of time well for me.

Sure, they are not the most original or inventive band around, and in fairness they should probably be donating half of their royalties to Brian Wilson. But what their music lacks in originality it makes up for in passion and talent, and they pull off the baroque pop sound better than most other bands in recent memory.

Highlights include the gloriously epic White winter hymnal, the beautifully understated ballad Tiger mountain peasant song and the gorgeously addictive He doesn't know why. There are little magic moments throughout, like the change halfway through Ragged wood which turns it into a completely different song. A highly recommend album.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

2010: A Year In Music [Part 1 of 5]

In previous years, my end-of-year ramblings were epic affairs where I discussed my favourite albums and songs of the year, my musical discoveries of the year and a re-evaluation of the previous year.

I only purchased two albums from 2010 - Shadows by Teenage Fanclub and Teen dream by Beach House. Lists of two aren't fun for anyone, so let's cut to the chase, and where my passion for music lies these days. I'm living in the past, man. Here were my choice aural discoveries of 2010 (sorted alphabetically, because orders are so arbitrary). It will be spread over 5 posts to ensure you don't get musical indigestion.

AC/DC - Back In Black

A few people will laugh at seeing the epitome of cock-rock in my list. A former workmate asked me a few years ago whether I had any AC/DC in my collection, and I informed him that they were a band I was yet to get into. This was the first album released after the death of original frontman Bon Scott, and I'm sure this choice will annoy the purists who say that replacement Brian Johnson was no match for the late singer.

There's no doubt that this is an adrenaline charged rock album with all the power riffage, misogynist lyrics and melodies that you need to get your blood pumping. Other than the more well known songs (You shook me all night long, Back in black and Rock and roll ain't noise pollution) there are some lesser-known classics like Have a drink on me, Shake a leg and Shoot to thrill which make this an incredibly solid rock album.

Antony & The Johnsons - The Crying Light

Long time readers of this blog may or may not remember that this band's 2005 album I am a bird now was my #1 album of 2005, as well as taking pride of place in my top 5 albums the 2000s. I had since picked up their debut (self-titled) album, which was also excellent but didn't quite reach the heights of I am a bird now.

The crying light was released in early 2009, and it has been on my list for a while to get. In 2010 I finally picked it up, and I am very impressed with it. Where I am a bird now was quite a diverse album (mainly due to the presence of several guest vocalists), what The crying light lacks in diversity it makes up for in subtle and cohesive beauty. Antony's haunting vibrato is one of my favourite instruments in recent memory, and he is able to convey so much emotion with his enunciation and phrasing.

From the stunning opener Hey eyes are underneath the ground, the playful Kiss my name, the eco-epic Another world and gorgeous closer Everglade, this is an album which deserves your respect and time. Challenging, yet oddly accessible.

The Avalanches - Since I Left You

This album by the Australian electronic dance collective was only released 11 years ago but is now considered a classic Australian album. Electronica, techno and dance is not generally "my bag baby" but after this album was featured on the excellent Classic Albums Podcast, I was convinced to pick it up. After all, these were two guys who generally reviewed indie, rock and pop music, but they also referred to this album as a masterpiece.

I'm glad I picked it up, because this was a wonderful addition to my music collection. A patchwork quilt of samples, sounds, melodies, beats and atmosphere; this is an album to get lost in. The tracks segue into each other until they no longer stand out as individual moments but as chapters in a never ending party. Yes, it's an album that needs to be listened to from start to finish, but there are also some gorgeous standouts: the opening title track sets the scene (with a great Madonna sample thrown in for good measure), Frontier psychiatrist is a piece of melodic sampling genius (crazy in the coconut?) and Two hearts in 3/4 time is a mesmerising chill-out number.

Just like Kind of blue and It takes a nation of millions to hold us back did for the jazz and hip-hop genres, this is an electronic album for people who don't generally like electronic music. A stunning musical achievement: but how can they follow it up?

The Beach Boys - Today!

The Beach Boys' 1966 masterpiece Pet sounds is rightly considered to be one of the best albums ever released. They also have some other great albums released in the late 60s and early 70s which are worth exploring, like Friends and Sunflower (please check them out if you haven't yet).

Like many people, I was falsely under the impression that Pet sounds seemed to come out of nowhere and most of their pre-1966 material was the cheesy surf music which tends to dominate the radio, giving the false impression that they were a bit of a novelty band. But like their friends across the Atlantic (The Beatles), The Beach Boys demonstrated a steady artistic progression during the mid 60s which hinted the way towards their masterwork.

The Today! album was released in 1965 and demonstrated Brian Wilson making huge artistic strides in both his songwriting and production talents. The first half of the album has some great individual moments like Don't hurt my little sister, When I grow up (to be a man) and the non-single version of Help me, Ronda (note the omission of the 'h' which was added to the single version). The two "dance" songs on the first half (Do you wanna dance? and Dance, dance, dance) don't sound too different from some of their earlier material, but most of the other songs have a sense of maturity and progression.

It's the second half of the album that provides the signpost towards Pet sounds - a stunning, gorgeously melodic suite of harmony laded love ballads with tinges of sadness and longing. The harmonies are exceptional and it all adds up to a eargasmic side of music.

Jackson Browne - Running On Empty

You would probably have to be living under a rock to not know the title track from this album. Just turn your radio dial to an oldies station and you would be guaranteed to hear it within the hour.

I had one other Jackson Browne album before this one -- Late from the sky -- an album which has some beautiful moments but didn't quite gel to a complete album for me. I decided to pick up this album when I did a bit of research about it, and I found several fans and critics refer to it as a "classic road album" in the same vein as Rattle & hum and New adventures in hi-fi.

I can't think of a better phrase for describing this album than this. From the scene-setting opening title track, themes of travel and being on the road permeate every sound and lyric of this excellent record. Most of the songs were recorded in hotel rooms, backstage in concerts and live on stage; the sound, production and vibe of the album are perfectly suited to the lyrical themes of travel, groupies, drugs, roadies and being far away from home.

One of the things I love about the album is those little touches -- how The road transitions seamlessly from a lo-fi hotel recording to a live recording, those wonderful harmonies during the chorus of Shaky town (courtesy of Danny Kortchmar) and the seamless segue between the roadie tribute The load out and the closing sing-along Stay. This is an album which isn't afraid to get a bit of dirt under its fingernails.